In 1955 Vladimir Nabakov wrote his controversial novel Lolita. The novel tells the story of the antihero, Humbert Humbert, having had a sexual encounter at an early age, becomes obsessed with young teenage girls, takes up a career as a school teacher, and marries a woman in order to gain access to her 14-year-old daughter Dolores, aka Lolita, with him he has become madly infatuated. After the mother’s untimely death, Humbert takes Lolita on the road with him, until she goes missing from a hospital, leading to Humbert hunting her down for two years. Very dark in it’s subject matter, the novel tells of Lolita fleeing an abusive partner, ending up pregnant, Humbert killing her abuser and Lolita dying in childbirth.
In the novel it is Humbert who insists that it is Lolita who manipulated and seduced him, when properly interpreted, it is she who is the victim of men unable to control their lusts. Since it’s publication in 1959, “Lolita” has been used as a common term for sexually promiscuous and manipulative teenage girls. And there is a common thread which goes right back to the novel; blaming the victim, which is an all-too-common trait sexual abusers of children.
So as both a feminist and survivor of childhood sexual abuse, when I heard the story of Henderson High School in Auckland, New Zealand, I immediately recognised a culture of blaming a victim, and worse still, became somewhat alarmed at the mention of adult males in the context of the story. This school has dictated to it’s female pupils that skirts must be worn below the knee, to prevent the male pupils becoming distracted. Now, it is not uncommon to hear this; it has happened in schools all over the world, and roundly needs to be criticised as it is the boys who need to stop looking upon the girls as sex objects; there’s the blaming the victim right away. What singles Henderson High out however, is the rather disturbing way they have gone a step further, and stated that this rule is also to prevent male teachers becoming distracted – by girls who could be as young as 13.
Sade Tuttle, a student at the school, states that a group of 40 girls were told by Deputy Head Teacher Cherith Telford after an assembly that the rule to keep skirts below the knee were necessary to “keep our girls safe, stop boys from getting ideas and create a good work environment for male staff”. And should anyone think that is but one teenage girl trying to stir up shit against her school, then it appears that her story has been corroborated, by no less than the Principal of Henderson High, Mike Purcell, who has stated that rules around school uniforms are “regularly enforced to ensure that all students and teachers can focus on their learning and feel comfortable in the school environment. All families are made aware of them when they enrol students. The rules include a stipulation that the hemline of female students’ skirts must be on the knee, no higher. This rule is in line with most New Zealand schools where uniforms are worn.”
Nobody is for one moment disputing the rules surrounding the length of school uniform skirts in New Zealand. It is the handling of this matter by Henderson High School which seriously needs to be called into question. Ms Tuttle said it best; “The rules themselves aren’t the problem; the problem is when these codes target girls specifically because their bodies are sexual and distracting”, as did another student, who stated that she went to school to be educated – not to be sexualised. A former pupil went further; “How about you stop telling 15 year old girls – that aren’t even legal to have sex – how sexual their knees are and how they need to cover themselves up because its a risk and distracting to male staff,” she posted on Facebook, “How about you don’t hire staff that are going to get aroused by a teenage girls knees?”
One has to ask what prompted Ms Telford and Mr Purcell to word the ruling in this manner? Were there male pupils who had made complaints? And worse still, were there male teachers who voiced their concern? In both cases, it is the boys and men who need to be educated not to look upon the female pupils as sexual objects. But if any adult male has brought the matter up, I would suggest that the professionalism of that teacher immediately needs to be called into question, because frankly, that is setting off a whole load of alarm bells in my head.
I am not for one moment denying that some teenage girls can be little minxes – it happens. Some girls can, do and will push the envelope wherever possible and see how far they can hitch their skirts up. Equally, young teenage girls can and do become infatuated with boys and even male teachers at schools. Just as some young teenage boys can and do become infatuated with girls and female teachers. And yes, they will go out of their way to dress in a way to show off their bodies – and their bulges (oh, hide it, for goodness sake – nobody’s impressed). Human beings are sexual creatures and in the nightmare of puberty, when our hormones completely screw up our minds and we start discovering our sexuality, it is quite common for this to happen. But when this does happen, the onus is always – always – upon the adult to behave like an adult and gently put the child down. And that is never more important than when that adult is a professional entrusted with a duty of care to those children. Anyone who denies that is behaving like Humbert, attempting to shift the blame onto Lolita. And if anyone cares to search the internet for court cases involving paedophilia and hebephilia (sexual attraction to pubescent or post-pubescent teens – Humbert was a hebephile, not a paedophile) then they will find that most defendants attempt this line of blaming the victim.
Some may think I am making quite a jump from school uniforms to actual convictions of child sex abusers. I say prevention is better than cure, and one has to watch out for the warning signs. If any teacher, or any professional entrusted with a duty of care to children, looks upon their charges with any degree of sexuality, that person is not fit for the post they are holding and needs to be removed and investigated. Should anyone think I am overplaying this, then consider that in the 1970s the rather sick Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) – who sought civil ‘rights’ for paedophiles and hebephiles – had a list of suggested careers for paedophiles; top of the list was join the clergy, second was to become a school teacher.
The whole issue goes deeper however, and surrounds the way that girls are sexualised from an early age. I recall once reading an article in one of my mother’s magazines which utterly horrified me. It was written by a mother trying to justify buying her daughter “frothy” undies, because “she just wants to be just like mummy”. There again was an adult acting without any sense of proportion, but then when there are firms and stores which produce and sell ‘sexy’ lingerie for little girls, it is yet one more symptom of the overall sickness. And no, I am not blaming the victim here, merely saying that adults need to act with some sense of propriety. Every little girl likes to make herself look pretty, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But when that crosses the line from making herself look pretty for her own self esteem, to making herself ‘attractive’ for the attention of males who can’t control themselves, it immediately becomes a problem. No young girl becomes “Lolita” on her own; it is adults who make her so.
Yet society too owes a responsibility to that. The fact is that girls and women, are sexualised, sexually harassed, abused, and raped from tiny babies to the extremely elderly, at all times of day, in all kinds of environments, whether they are attractive or plain – and in whatever they are wearing. Even nuns in habits and Islamic women in full burqah and niqab are not immune from from the unwelcome sexual advances of men. And then of course, one has to ask what does and does not constitute seductive clothing. Well this can cover a great many things, including lingerie, mini skirts, boob tubes, basques, stockings, nurses uniforms, ermm – nun’s habits, and of course – school uniforms. Doubt the latter? Stores and online outlets selling sexual cosplay gear make a fortune out of ‘naughty schoolgirl’ costumes, Britney Spears got a number one on the back of a video of girls in school uniforms, Japanese anime is full of them, and the St Trinian’s movies (old and modern) did indeed sexualise schoolgirls in uniforms, as did The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
So, if school uniforms are already sexualised, if girls are already sexualised, then the Deputy and Principal of Henderson High School have openly discriminated against their female students and are now trying to hide behind the dress code for most New Zealand schools. They are in fact further blaming those who are already victims, when in reality they seriously need to address their own behaviours, as well as those of their male students, and more importantly still, their adult male staff, whom they may well wish to examine more closely, in order to root out any potential ‘Humberts’ – before it’s too late.